Chapter 24: Narrative analysis

Darshini Ayton and Heather Craig

Learning outcomes

Upon completion of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Define a narrative.
  • Explain the process of conducting narrative analysis and describe the elements of a story produced from narrative data.
  • Describe the advantages and challenges of narrative analysis.


What is narrative analysis?

In simple terms, a narrative is a story with a beginning, middle and end or outcome. Bruner1 suggests that narratives (stories) are ways of knowing:

Telling stories is an astonishing thing. We are a species whose main purpose is to tell each other about the expected and the surprises that upset the expected, and we do that through the stories we tell. 1(p8)

In narrative analysis, the stories (narratives) participants tell are analysed and then ‘re-storied’, or retold, based on the research questions and frameworks of the research.2 Narratives may be unique, or they may be representative. However, when writing a ‘group’ story, the narrative should partially describe the individuals while not specifically describing each individual.3 Narrative analysis may focus on what the story is about (the thematic content of the story) or on the structural components of the story (structural analysis).3

Constructing a narrative from data

The following 2 processes can assist the researcher to identify the structure and content of the narrative4:

  • Read and re-read the transcripts.
  • Identify events in the transcripts as told by the participants – these are events that have happened.
  • Identify the experiences of the participants and note any images, feelings, reactions or meanings ascribed to the experience by the participants.
  • Note accounts, explanations and excuses as told by the participants.
  • Identify the sequences of events, key characters, plot lines and imagery used in the narrative, and explore what this might represent (e.g. metaphors).
  • Identify the beginning, middle and end of the story.

Coding for narrative analysis identifies the sequence or plot of the story. This process involves six codes that are applied to the narrative:

Abstract – a few sentences to introduce the story and give an indication of the topic.

Orientation – the who (people involved), what (situation or activity), when (time) and where (location) of the story.

Complicating action – the event that starts the story and sets up the plot.

Evaluation – sometimes called ‘reflection’; how the participant interprets the plot and their commentary on why (for example) the complicating action is important or not resolved.

Resolution – the final part of the plot that resolves the complicating action.

Coda – a section that ends the story and completes the plot.

Following is a narrative sequence based on the author’s story of being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. When interviewing participants for the purpose of narrative analysis, the researcher needs to ask a question that elicits a narrative from the participant. For example, in this narrative, the question from the researcher could have been: ‘Tell me the story of how you were diagnosed with multiple sclerosis’. This invites the participant to give a narrative response with a beginning (symptoms), middle (seeking help) and (hopefully) end (the diagnosis). In the example, the author (Ayton) has coded the 6 elements of her story.

We were at the movies on a Saturday night – watching The Simpsons movie with some friends. I remember sitting there feeling like I had sand in my left shoe. My toes felt gritty and weird. It was a weird sensation but I thought it would pass. My husband and I went home and when I woke up the next morning, the sensation was up to my waist. The sensation was like pins and needles – the type you get when you fall asleep on your arm and limit blood circulation. My skin was buzzing slightly. I was starting to freak out at this stage. I was wondering if I had a brain tumour. [Orientation] [Abstract]

I went to work on Monday morning and, by this stage, the sensation was quite strong and was in both my legs and my torso up to my chest. It was uncomfortable but not painful. It was alarming, though. I was working at a university and my boss was a general practitioner. I told her about my symptoms and she said it could be stress, and to have a bath and breath in and out into a paper bag. When I got home that night I tried doing what she told me, but it didn’t help. I had made an appointment with my normal GP for the next day. When I saw her she thought it could be neurological and gave me a referral to see a private neurologist. She also asked me to get more bloods done. However, the earliest appointment was in 3 weeks. I was starting to feel like I was going crazy and didn’t feel like I could wait that long. [Complicating action]

The next day I went to work but walked over to the hospital that was next to the university. I sat in the emergency department for a few hours and was seen by a registrar, who did the same blood tests as my GP. He didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong with me and said while my white blood-cell count was slightly elevated, it wasn’t enough to suggest that anything was wrong. He sent me home with instructions to come back if it got worse.

Over the next few days, the sensation kept getting stronger. It got to the point where I felt I could cut off my leg and not feel it. I felt like some crazy marshmallow person and felt spongy and weird even though my body looked the same.

I couldn’t stand it any longer and so I stumbled back to the emergency department on Monday morning. I was seen by a different registrar and remember thinking that he was very good looking. He looked like he could be a character on Grey’s Anatomy. He started doing some tests on me, including ones that tested my skin sensation. While he was doing the tests, I was recounting my experiences of the last week and said that I felt like I was going crazy. He looked me in the eye and said, “I believe you”, and I promptly burst into tears. He called a neuro registrar – a lovely young woman. I remember she asked me to stand with my feet together and to close my eyes. I fell backwards straight away and was so shocked! She also asked me to walk as though I was balancing on a tightrope. I put one foot in front of the other but I couldn’t swing my other leg around without falling over. I was amazed and scared at the same time. She admitted me straight away. I got my first MRI – a very traumatic experience. [Evaluation]

My husband stayed with me that night as I was so freaked out. I had never been admitted to a hospital before. We huddled together on the hospital bed. Needless to say, we didn’t get much sleep. I just kept hearing all the different beeps and alarms that are typical of a hospital ward. At 7 am the next morning the neuro registrar I had met the night before entered with a senior consultant. They explained that I had transverse myelitis and that I had lesions on my spine and brain that were causing the symptoms. They were going to start me on methylprednisolone and I was going to stay in the hospital until the end of the week. [Resolution]

I was so relieved that it wasn’t a brain tumour. However, both my husband and I were trained in biomedicine. When the neurologist was describing the lesions my husband asked – is this multiple sclerosis? The neurologist looked a bit surprised and then said – it could be, but I needed another “attack” before a diagnosis could be made. There was no way to tell if, and when, this would happen. And so the waiting game began. [Coda]

Another example can be found in Wang5, who applied narrative analysis to Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette (a show on Netflix).

Narrative analysis can be used to put together the various elements of data in a coherent and interesting narrative, and to provide explanations.6 The researcher recursively moves between the data and the emerging narrative. As the story is written, the researcher examines the data and develops or refines the story if the events or actions do not align with the plot that is developing.6

The story that is developed by the researcher would not be the same as one the participant(s) would construct if they wrote their own story. The story is constructed by the researcher and is therefore shaped by the researcher’s personal views, experiences and priorities (i.e. the research objectives). Furthermore, in the case of in-depth interviews, the story will be influenced by the dynamic and collaborative interactions between the researcher and participants as data is collected.6 The narrative will also differ from that which a different researcher might put together if they conducted a similar study. However, despite this subjectivity, the narrative analysis does provide a credible interpretation of participants’ experiences, with quotes providing examples in the participants’ own ‘voice’.6 So, while the analysis and subsequent story should be close to the data and ‘fit’ it well, the narrative also adds meaning and order that is not evident from the raw data.6

Advantages and challenges of narrative analysis

Narrative analysis provides the stories of participants in narrative form to enable comparison between and across key story elements. These narratives provide a holistic understanding of lived experience and can be a powerful way to create policy change. However, narrative analysis can be a slow process and the researcher needs to be able to pay attention to subtle details and interpret the story overall.6

Table 24.1 provides 2 examples of research using narrative analysis.

Table 24.1. Examples of narrative analysis

Title Changing bodies, changing narratives and the consequences of tellability: a case study of becoming disabled through sport7 Lifechangers and Lifesavers: Pets in the Redemption Narratives of Homeless People8
CC Licence
First author Smith, 2007 Irvine, 2013
Aim To explore these connections by focusing upon the life story of one individual
called Jamie (a pseudonym) who experienced a spinal cord injury (SCI) and became disabled through playing the sport of rugby union football.
'Examines personal narratives in which homeless and formerly homeless people construct their companion animals as having changed or saved their lives' [abstract]
Data collection Life history interviews– the participant was interviewed 3 times and asked to tell his life story in his own words. Qualitative interviews with people who were homeless and owned a pet.
Participants 1 participant 5 participants
Analysis Structural narrative analysis Personal narrative analysis or socio-narratology.
Results The story is told through a sequence of structures:

  • Jamie: context and background

  • Spinal cord injury, the body-self, and restitution

  • Spinal cord injury, the body-self, and chaos

  • Disability and deprivation of opportunity

  • Disability and infiltrated consciousness

  • Impairment and impairment effects

  • Reflections
Two participant stories are provided as narratives for constructing animals as life changers, and three participant stories illustrate the narrative of constructing animals as lifesavers.


Narrative analysis, broadly speaking, is the process of making sense of stories. The coding process seeks to identify key elements of the sequence of the story to identify the beginning (abstract and orientation), middle (complicating action and evaluation) and end (resolution and coda). Although highly interpretive, narrative analysis is a valid method of providing a credible interpretation of the participants’ experiences.


  1. Bruner J. Narratives of human plight: A conversation with Jerome Bruner. In: Montello M, Charon R, eds. Stories matter – the role of narrative in medical ethics. Routledge; 2002.
  2. Liamputtong P. Qualitative data analysis: conceptual and practical considerations. Health Promot J Austr. 2009;20(2):133-9. doi:10.1071/he09133
  3. Figgou L, Pavlopoulos V. Social Psychology: Research Methods. International Encyclopedia of Social & Behavioural Sciences. 2015;22:554-552 doi:10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.24028-2
  4. Gibbs GR. Analyzing Biographies and Narratives. In: Gibbs GR, ed. Analysing Qualitative Data. SAGE Publications, Ltd; 2012:56-72.
  5. Wang Y. Narrative structure analysis: A story from “Hannah Gadsby: Nanette”. Journal of Language Teaching and Research. 2020;11(5):682-687. doi:10.17507/jltr.1105.03
  6. Sharp NL, Bye RA, Cusick A. Narrative Analysis. In: Liamputtong P, ed. Handbook of Research Methods in Health Social Sciences. Springer; 2019:861-880.
  7. Smith B, Sparkes AC. Changing bodies, changing narratives and the consequences of tellability: a case study of becoming disabled through sport. Sociology of Health & Illness. 2007;30(2):217-236 doi:10.1111/j.1467-9566.2007.01033.x
  8. Irvine L. Animals as Lifechanges and Lifesavers: Pets in the Redemption Narratives of Homeless People. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. 2013;42(1):3-30 doi:10.1177/0891241612456550


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